Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's the Most Important Year in American Cinema in the Last 20 Years?

I'm having an ongoing feud with a friend of over this issue, so I thought I'd throw it out there for public consumption...

Friend X says its 1993. His evidence:
  • Schindler's List marks a turning point in Steven Spielberg's career away from movies primarily about childhood or childhood fantasies/fears to more profound "grown up" themes. It's also the point where Spielberg's movie start becoming more stylistically innovative.
  • Groundhog Day becomes an instant cultural touchstone. Has never been touched since; no sequel talk and I'd imagine no one would dare try to remake it (... any time soon, at least).
  • Philadelphia is the first big studio movie to deal with AIDS/gay issues openly and marks the moment when Tom Hanks stops being "just" a comedian and starts becoming this generation's Jimmie Stewart.
  • Tombstone offers a timely rebuttal that the "old fashioned" western isn't dead just a year after "Unforgiven" made one helluva case for its demise. May have saved the "traditional" Hollywood Western.
  • Dazed and Confused launches the careers of dozens of actors and actresses (in addition to it being one of the best movies ever).
  • And -- most importantly -- Jurassic Park ushers in the CGI era for film-making, arguably the most important technical development in movies since the advent of sound.
Not bad -- very strong case in my opinion. Obviously there were other movies made in '93 that could be mentioned, but were going to give you the Cliff's Notes version of the argument here.

But I'm still leaning toward 1999:
  • The Matrix upends sci-fi by combined postmodern philosophy and classical religion with a dystopian epic. Spawned dozens of imitators and parodies of it's innovative "bullet-time" shots, a few wholesale rip-offs, and completely overshadowed the year's highest grossing film...
  • Star Wars: Episode I. Let's face it, if ever there was a passing of the science fiction torch, 1999 was it -- especially since, just like George Lucas, the Wichowski Brothers haven't made a decent movie since the one that made them famous. In a lot of ways, 1999 was just as remarkable for the movie that didn't make an impact almost as much as those that did.
  • The Blair Witch Project takes the reality show/ psychological horror genre / guerrilla film-making / shaky cam use to another level. Again, another film that was endlessly parodied. (Notice how "The Matrix" and "Blair Witch" almost single-highhandedly rejuvenated the unforgivable parody franchises that owe their lineage to "Airplane!" but were never nearly as funny: "Scary Movie," "Date Movie," "Epic Movie," etc.?) Took the shaky-cam style first used to notably effect in Saving Private Ryan to it's logical extreme and has been used by countless horror and action movies in the last decade. [Plus, if anyone wants to take me up on this "The Blair Witch Project" may be the best post-9/11 movie ever made. That's right, I said post-9/11 even though it was released two years earlier. Go ahead, try me...]
  • Eyes Wide Shut: The last Stanley Kubric film (he also died in '99) still befuddles critics, but really marks the passing of Kubric's meticulous use of some of the most beautiful Steadicam shots ever used in film (in sharp contrast to Blair Witch and many of the films it inspired).
  • Fight Club: Need I go on?
  • Election: Small movie that appeals mostly to politics junkies, but there are many in this crowd who feel this is the best movie ever made about American politics
  • The Sixth Sense: Still one of the best twists to any ending on film. A thoughtful, meticulous and intensely spiritual movie ... that has been mocked and imitated to little avail, including by the the director himself.
  • Being John Malkovitch: Genre-bending film as much about the dichotomy between fame and obscurity as it is a metaphysical meditation on the nature of consciousness itself. First time Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze team up and includes the single strangest chase scene in all of cinema, period.
  • Office Space: The quintessential cult film that takes an absurdist approach to looking at professional malaise and paradoxically gazes far deeper into the phenomenon than any movie since, including...
  • American Beauty: A film that was much heralded at the time but has not aged well. In many ways it tries to examine the same slice of Americana that "Office Space" does, but is the more serious evil twin. Funny how that works out...
But it was also a big year for genre films. Take animated movies for example:
  • South Park: Bigger, Louder & Uncut: Apparently Steven Sondheim called up creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to tell them South Park was like the best musical he'd seen in a generation (or something to that effect) and we have no reason to disagree with him. Compare it to "The Simpsons Movie" for a moment, or rather don't, since there is no comparison.
  • The Iron Giant: First Brad Bird animated flick -- not his best best, but contains the first signs of the genius to come in "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille."
1999 also marked a great year for "teen" dramas:
  • American Pie: marked the return of the teen gross-out sex comedy woefully unseen since "Porky's."
  • 10 Things I Hate About You: The single best adaptation of Shakespeare to modern day America, yet captured on film. Other films tried to follow suit, but none had the charm.
  • Cruel Intentions: If this movie doesn't get made, "Gossip Girl" never makes it on TV.
  • Varsity Blues: Total crap, but eternally parodied to magnificent effect and likely the impetus to get the story right through the various incarnations of "Friday Night Lights" (even the bad movies somehow had a life after the theater in 1999).
Other notable films that had a lasting impact:
  • The Straight Story: a touching, poignant G-rated Disney film directed by ... David Lynch?
  • The Virgin Suicides: another passing of the torch film to a new generation of film-makers, etc. This time from father to daughter in the Coppola family
  • Magnolia: PT Anderson's "Boogie Nights" follow-up that's like a 2 1/2 hour long kick to the nuts. We'll argue that with "There Will Be Blood" Anderson took one of the 1/2 dozen story lines woven into "Magnolia," isolated it, focused on it and created one of the best films of decade.
There's a few others we could mention, and we could also go on at much further length with all of the film mentioned above, but we're going to maintain that 1999 is the most important year in at least the last 20 years.

If you can do us one better, go nuts.


Cindy Kilkenny said...

You've made a great case for 1999. 10 Things I Hate About You is a favorite. American Beauty absolutely blew me away.

But how can you compete with Groundhog Day?

Jb said...

That's actually part of the problem. "Groundhog Dog" almost stands alone as a work of art in that there really hasn't been anything that followed it that one can point to and say "That was totally influenced by 'Groundhog Day'!"

That's not a bad thing, just a problem in terms of affecting what follows it.

'99 was full of movies that made a lasting impression, in fact, it set the tone for the way movies are made today. Plus, it's hard to look back at other year and see so many different movies make such an impression not only on their specific genres, but also in other areas as well.

Brew City Brawler said...

You're both wrong. It's 1992. Two words: Reservoir Dogs.
Some more (and not even exhaustive):

Basic Instinct
Unforgiven (as noted)
Bob Roberts
Buffy the Vampire slayer (paving the way for playful/hip genre play)
Deep cover
Glengarry Glenn Ross
Malcolm X
A League of their own
The Player
Single White Female
Wayne's World

Not defending the artistic integrity of all of these, but for sheer throw-weight and ensuing influence (and this list doesn't include Aladdin and others), I can't see how you can beat 1992. Again, at the time it was pretty clear that something in American movies/commercial potential of indy films, had changed with Reservoir Dogs.

Plus, great year for foreign films: Like Water for Chocolate (spawning the latest iteration of the approachable sexy foreign flick), Best Intentions, Hard Boiled, El Mariachi, Crying Game.

CJ said...

You young'ens....